Foley on Microsoft

Windows 8: Show Us the Hardware!

Mary Jo Foley points out that while Microsoft can talk Windows 8 all it wants, there's currently no hardware that can truly show off what Window 8 will do.

Following the February release of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, we know a lot about Windows 8. The coming OS is nearly code-complete. Close-to-final Windows 8 developer tools are downloadable. Accompanying developer documentation is finally starting to debut.

But a couple of key components of Windows 8 are still murky- -including the supporting hardware. And the sketchiness of these elements makes it difficult for developers, partners and potential customers to get a real feel for what Windows 8 is going to be like when it launches later this year.

The Windows 8 hardware story is so incomplete that I'm surprised almost no one is mentioning it. There are no tablets or PCs out there that show off Windows 8 in the same way that the new iPad shows off iOS.

Yes, there are a handful of touch-enabled laptops and touch-centric tablets that ship with Windows 7 on which users can install Windows 8. And there is the demo Samsung tablet Microsoft handed out in September 2011 to paying attendees of its BUILD conference. But if you want to get a real sense of what Windows 8 is going to look and work like, there's basically nothing on which to run it.

Microsoft officials have said repeatedly that if a PC or tablet runs Windows Vista or Windows 7, it will be able to work well with Windows 8. But this statement is a gross oversimplification. Users can install Windows 8 on a system with a screen resolution below 1,366 x 768 (the Microsoft recommendation for optimal Windows 8 performance). But unless you've read the fine print, you might not realize that if either dimension is lower than this minimum, you can only run one Metro-style app at a time, because the "Snap" feature won't work. And if you're below the 1,024 x 768 threshold (which some netbooks and PCs are), you can't run Metro apps at all, and the new app store doesn't work.

The Windows team has been testing Windows 8 on a handful of existing touch tablets and PCs, a list of which company officials provided late last year. Some users might happen to have one of these, and be able to install the Consumer Preview or beta bits onto it. If you don't, now seems like a bad time to go and buy one, given new Windows 8 machines are likely to come to market in the summer or fall of this year.

We've seen a couple of PC makers show early versions of their coming "Designed for Windows 8" machines, like the Lenovo YogaPad. But I can't help but think (or at least hope) there are even better Windows 8 PCs and tablets in the wings -- including something that will make me want to use touch on my PC that I use primarily for work. Even months -- in some cases, more than a year -- after the release of Windows 7, few PC makers had launched true thin and light laptops that were optimized for the OS. That kind of a lag in more ergonomic, more interesting touch-centric devices would make me -- and probably other Windows users -- hesitate on making the switch.

The situation is even murkier on the system-on-a-chip (SoC) side of the Windows 8 house. Microsoft has provided only limited demos of Windows-on-ARM (WOA) tablets, and even less show and tell when it comes to the SoC variants, such as Intel Clover Trail devices. Microsoft is planning to get some early WOA prototypes to developers and partners in an invitation-only preview this spring. But none of us "consumers" has any idea how well these tablets- -which are Microsoft's true iPad competitors, by the way- -will work. How long will their battery life be? How much will they cost? Will they be manageable in any way in corporate environments? We just don't know, even though the 'Softies have said these machines should ship simultaneously with x86/x64-based Windows 8 PCs.

The 'Softies are promising Windows 8 will be a "no compromise" experience across a wide variety of form factors. I, for one, want to see more of these form factors -- and before the 2012 holiday season.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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